Article on Haslett's fourth year
FOURTH and GOAL
After three years of picking, training and molding players, Saints coach Jim Haslett knows that his fourth year is a critical one, because win or lose, this is truly his team
Saturday July 26, 2003
By Jeff Duncan
When Jim Haslett walks onto the practice field to start his fourth training camp as head coach of the New Orleans Saints, his stride will carry a little more authority than usual.
And that's saying something because Haslett has one of the healthiest swaggers in the National Football League.
There's a reason for Haslett's confidence, though.
For the first time in his tenure, these truly are Jim Haslett's Saints. This is his team, forged in his image, stamped with his approval.
Of the 90 players that will take the field today for training camp workouts, only two -- center Jerry Fontenot and reserve defensive lineman Willie Whitehead -- are left over from the Mike Ditka era. None of the 16 draft picks selected during the Ditka regime remains.
Perceived problem children, Willie Roaf, Ricky Williams and Kyle Turley, have been cast to other clubs. Players whose style didn't fit Haslett's system, like safety Sammy Knight, tight end Cam Cleeland and guard Chris Naeole, were allowed to leave for other markets.
"Nothing against the players that we let go, because a lot of them are good football players, but these are 'our' players," Haslett said. "Players will always be loyal to the coach that brought them in or the coach that drafted them. . . . All the players that we have drafted since I have been here in 2000 are the guys that we are relying on to win a lot of football games for us over the next few years."
It's a critical year for Haslett, whose .542 winning percentage (26-22 record) ranks second among the 13 coaches in club history.
On the heels of consecutive December dives and one year removed from a five-year, $15 million contract extension, expectations are higher than ever.
No more excuses
The excuse well has run dry. Haslett can't blame the Ditka regime for the poor talent. He can't blame the players for poor execution. He can't blame the weather or the conditions in Thibodaux for the distractions.
"We're not going to make excuses," Haslett said Thursday. "Last year was disappointing for all of us. We analyzed everything and looked at why it happened. It really boils down to not making enough plays. Sure, we were a young team, and you can blame the heat and we were tired. You can say all that. You can make excuses for anything. Bottom line is we just didn't get it done."
Haslett can still replay every blown assignment, dropped pass and penalty that cost his team down the stretch of the disappointing 9-7 campaign. At midseason his club was 6-2, ranked No. 1 in The New York Times power ratings and Haslett was taking phone calls from friends wanting Super Bowl tickets. Three months and a grim 0-3 finish later, he was home for playoffs. It didn't make things easier when he watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team the Saints defeated twice, roll to the Super Bowl XXXVII title.
The bitter season fueled Haslett throughout a tireless offseason. He and general manager Mickey Loomis overhauled the defense, signing, drafting or trading for as many as four new starters. Forty-three of the 90 players on the roster are newcomers.
Haslett was the driving force behind several of the moves. He personally negotiated the trade with New England coach Bill Belichick for free safety Tebucky Jones. He also was the catalyst behind the bold trade in the first round of the NFL draft, where the club selected Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan.
"Jim was relentless this offseason," said defensive coordinator Rick Venturi, one of Haslett's most trusted confidants. "A lot of these deals could have died if Jim had not been so aggressive. He just refused to give up on them."
Window of opportunity
There's more to that sense of urgency than Haslett's characteristic aggressiveness. Though he won't say it publicly, Haslett senses that the rebuilding job is nearly complete. Entering his fourth season, the window of opportunity for the club to win a championship has opened.
"I think we're just at that point right now," said Haslett, who will turn 48 in December. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I like the makeup of our team."
Year Four often is a threshold season for head coaches during the rebuilding process.
Ditka led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl XX title in New Orleans in his fourth season with the club.
The next season, Bill Parcells won his Super Bowl with the New York Giants in his fourth season as head coach. A decade later, he guided New England to Super Bowl XXXI in his fourth season with the Patriots.
In his fourth season with the Dallas Cowboys, Jimmy Johnson won Super Bowl XXVII, his first as a head coach.
In his fourth season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bill Cowher earned his only Super Bowl trip, a 27-17 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXX.
Several coaches, including Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh, Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay and Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, earned their first trips to the championship games of their conferences in their fourth seasons.
"It takes time to get things turned around," Haslett said. "We raised expectations so high after that first season (winning the franchise's first playoff game). It's hard to win games in this league. We're not where we want to be, but we've accomplished a lot in three years."
And armed with a full roster of "his guys" and a gleaming new training facility, Haslett is more eager than ever to start practice.
"We are a fast football team, we are a talented football team, we are a young football team," Haslett said. "I think time will tell how fast we mature."
"I will say this," he added. "I hope we come around in December and have the same amount of wins that we had last year. I would love it if we are in that same position."
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Jeff Duncan can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3405.
Article on Haslett's fourth year
I think Haslett is the only coach in the league that could start the season out 8-0 and fans would still be skeptical of going to the playoffs.
Things seem to coming together nicely for the Saints this year. The defensive line was the big worry and IMO, this could be a strong area this year.
Haslett could be coach of the year again??
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